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Powerhouse team: The cultural leaders shaping the museum’s public domain

The Powerhouse Parramatta’s Landscape Curatorium comprises a group of esteemed individuals advising on First Nations landscape design, farming, caring for Country, and more. Their goal? To assist in the development of the landscape design for the museum’s public domain.

Powerhouse team: The cultural leaders shaping the museum’s public domain

Since the New South Wales government announced the Parramatta Powerhouse project in 2015, there has been extensive debate about the aspiration to create the first major cultural institution in Western Sydney. Billed as ‘the most significant investment into cultural infrastructure in New South Wales since the Sydney Opera House,’ the institution has a narrative arc that would be the envy of the most dramatic libretto.

A branch of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS), the Powerhouse is connected to a lineage of grand exhibitions that celebrated science and industry in the 19th century. Plans for a permanent exhibition of industrial and technological innovations in the Garden Palace, constructed in the Royal Botanic Gardens for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition, were thwarted when the building was destroyed by fire prior to opening the new institution in 1882. In 1893 the salvaged collection became the Technology Museum, and over the next century the collection expanded to include decorative arts, science, communication, computer, and space technology, providing strong connections to community.

In 1998 the Ultimo Power Station was transformed into the Powerhouse Museum, displaying parts of the collection that had been in storage for decades and providing a catalyst for a new urban network, as the nearby University of Technology Sydney campus developed. The proposal to relocate the Powerhouse to Parramatta and to sell the Ultimo site to fund the new building was met with a barrage of protests about the loss of a much-loved institution in the inner city, concerns about the technical issues of relocating the key large-scale exhibits and calls for the new development in the west to address the community of Parramatta more specifically. An expanded consultation process led to the decision to retain and regenerate the Ultimo site and to develop Parramatta with a specific agenda to connect to place and people.

A Landscape Curatorium has been established to assist with the development of the landscape design of the museum’s public domain, and an exploration of program, use, spatial design and planting strategies that can foster connections between people and place. It brings together collaborators and cultural leaders to explore the landscape brief in an expansive way, and to provide expertise in the detail design of the spaces. Diverse expertise in First Nations landscape design, farming and Caring for County, agricultural science, botany, horticulture, permaculture will inform the process of community engagement and design.

Related: Connecting with Country: an architectural framework for Blackwattle Bay

Parramatta Powerhouse

Providing knowledge to embed the development of sustainable practices, productive and edible planning and a multi-cultural programme is D’harawal Elder, botanist and author Aunty Fran Bodkin; Bundjalung Man and Gardening Australia presenter Clarence Slockee; Royal Botanic Garden Sydney director of horticulture John Siemon; founders of Milkwood, Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar; director of Sydney Institute of Permaculture Penny Pyett; and Wiradjuri Woman and Royal Botanic Garden Sydney manager of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, Renee Cawthorne.

The Curatorium will encourage knowledge-sharing and storytelling that highlights First Nations care of, and connection with, the land. The process will ensure that First Nations communities give consent to the use and sharing of knowledge and facilitate the consultation and community engagement. Overseeing the project, Powerhouse chief executive, Lisa Havilah, brings her experience as the director of Carriageworks where she developed a highly successful farmers’ market and explored a diverse range of opportunities to embed food and food culture across the creative industries.

Central to the process is the expertise of Aunty Fran Bodkin that has been developed through knowledge passed down from her Aboriginal mother and her extensive university education in environmental science, botany and climatology. Her understanding of D’harawal culture, natural resources, the traditional six seasons of the Sydney basin and the cultural uses of local species of plants, and her expertise as an engaging storyteller will provide an incredible layer of understanding to the project. Both Aunty Fran and Clarence Slockee are interested in the value of associative planting, understanding the interrelationship and interdependency between plant species, and the importance of reinstating planting communities that have been lost through development. They bring a desire to explore how these ideas can underpin the design of creative spaces that have natural and cultural heritage connections, and can feed conversations around education, biodiversity, habitat loss and threatened species. Their connections to a broader network of people from across Sydney who have connections to Country, understanding of cultural protocols and experience liaising with stakeholders provide an essential perspective.

The intention to develop the public domain into a connected and productive ecosystem is an ambitious project with layers of complex design considerations. Creating a major public space within a riparian zone that is subject to flooding requires an understanding of the impacts of this condition on both hardscape and plant selection. Similarly, the design of the rooftop garden produces challenges, as its location 50 metres above ground level creates a windy micro-climate and is the upper height for pollinators. The implementation of the Landscape Curatorium presents an innovative approach to addressing these issues, exploring landscape design, community engagement and the understanding of connections between people and place in the broadest sense.

Parramatta Powerhouse

The landscape approach aligns with initiatives from the Cities of Sydney and Penrith to create biodiversity corridors and reconsider how greenspace is developed, providing an expanded, innovative approach to sustainability. It also reconnects with the founding idea of the museum focus on innovation, and its location in a garden centred on research and education, but shifts the focus to understanding systems rather than objects, with an interactive and evolving program of engagement and shared knowledge building.

Powerhouse Parramatta

Courtesy of Powerhouse Parramatta

We think you might like this article about fjmt and Bangawarra’s collaboration on a Connecting with Country Framework for Blackwattle Bay.

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